I was recently on a bicycling trip in Tuscany Italy perusing one of the great grilled dishes on the planet, the holy grail of grilled steak, the famed bistecca alla fiorentina, a huge Tuscan T-bone porterhouse served whole, and it’s equally delicious sister steak, the tagliata de monza, a grilled strip steak or rib-eye, grilled and sliced in the kitchen, usually drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. No rub, no marinade, no nothing – just a handful of sea salt crusting a beautifully aged, thick-cut loin of beef.
The Italians have a long tradition of grilling – from cracker-crisp flatbreads, crostini and bruschetta, grilled tomatoes, peppers, onions, eggplants and zucchini, squashes and pumpkins, chicken under a brick and herb-rubbed spit-roasted sucking pork – perhaps the greatest sandwich meat on the planet.
When we think of grilling here in the US, we think of summertime backyard barbeques outdoors and grilled meals from a gas or charcoal grill, but in Italy, fall and winter are the seasons for grilling indoors, where there is always a roaring fire in the fireplace or wood burning oven.
In Tuscany, they stoke the fire all day long – because it’s cold in those old stone country houses up on the hill. Unlike the rest of the pantheon of Italian cookery which is dominated by grandmothers and women in the kitchen, Tuscan grilling is real man-of-the-house-cooking. Very machismo. A fireplace. White-hot wood embers. A Tuscan grill grate. And a loin of really good beef and some salt. That’s all you need.
How they do it in Tuscany
Start by raking the glowing embers of the oak fire under a slanted Tuscan grill, toss on a three-fingers-thick aged Chianini beef porterhouse on the diagonal to the grill grate, toss on a handful of sea salt and watch and wait. Tend the fire and keep flare-ups to a minimum. Check it constantly and find a hot spot and stay in control of your fire. Flip the steak, and salt the crusted side. Cook that beautiful piece of meat till it’s almost black on both sides, a good 8-12 minutes, depending on your fire. Dismount the steak to a cutting board and let it rest a few minutes.
Bring the bistecca to the table, carve off the strip loin steak and slice it across the grain. Re-arrange the slices back into the original shape. Cut out the tenderloin and slice it up into thick slices across the grain. Put everything back together on the cutting board. To be authentic, serve the bistecca with nothing else, except a drizzle of the finest extra-virgin olive oil, maybe a few slices of grilled bread, and good Italian wine – a Brunello de Montalcino, a chianti classico or a Vino Nobile de Montapulciano. No potatoes, no starch, no veggies. It’s a meat course all by itself.
To clarify, the bistecca is a 2” thick, aged Tuscan porterhouse (with a filet and a strip steak on either side of the T bone) from the ancient breed of white-coated Tuscan cattle called Chianini beef. It’s equivalent in the US is a prime aged porterhouse steak which you can probably special order from a reputable butcher or meat counter of a decent market, or 100% grass-fed black angus beef porterhouse, but it has to be beef that comes a farmer/rancher who practices decent animal husbandry. I would not use grain-fed feed-lot mass market produced inexpensive steaks wrapped in plastic from the supermarket. You want really good meat for this dish – the best meat you can find.
The tagliatta, (from the Italian tagliare – to slice) is a top sirloin (a thick, hand-cut New York strip steak here in the US), or a bone-in rib-eye, preferably 100% grass-fed, or prime, preferably dry-aged for a good thirty days. Black Angus would be the next best thing, (although not dry-aged) either from a farmer’s market or a decent butcher shop. Again, you want the best meat you can possibly find.
Chef Willie’s Bistecca alla Fiorentina, made in the USA
What you are looking for is a perfectly crusted, almost black charred steak that is still blood-red rare (but hot) in the center. Once I’ve got a good char going on both sides of my steak, I can move the steak over indirect heat on the grill till done, or I like to finish the steaks on the floor of a pre-heated 450 degree oven in my cast iron grill pan till rare to medium-rare. A big, huge porterhouse has two steaks on either side of the bone, and some of it will cook faster, so some of it will be rare while some of it will be medium-rare.
1 2-inch thick porterhouse or T-bone steak, about 2 lbs
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Arrange the steak on a platter on paper towels to keep it dry, at room temperature. Preheat a cast iron grill pan in a hot oven, just in case.
Light a charcoal grill with real hardwood charcoal, which burns very hot, fast and smoky. (If you have some oak firewood, use it too). When the charcoal has burned down to white-hot embers, rake the coals in a single layer and install the grill grate 4-5 inches above the coals. Brush and oil the grill grate– I use a piece of beef fat trimming – while the grill grate gets super hot.
Dry the steak with paper towels and generously season both sides with sea salt. Toss the steak on the grill over direct heat, close the grill cover and grill the steak on the first side for a good 4 minutes, keeping flare ups to a minimum. (I use a squeeze bottle filled with water. Remember: flame ups are bad – they’ll burn the steak, not cooking it properly).
Flip the steak to the second side and grill over direct heat for another 4 minutes (with the cover closed) till well charred and crusted – the steak should have plumped up a bit, shrunk a little and the fat and edges of the steak should be almost burned – brown, not black.
Finish the steak over indirect heat on the grill till cooked through rare to medium rare for another 4-5 minutes (115-120 degrees with a meat thermometer) or bring the steak inside to the super-hot grill pan and finish the steak in the oven for a few minutes, till done to your liking – preferably still nice and rare inside.
Chef Willie’s Notes
Put the steak on a cutting board and tent with foil to rest for a few minutes. Bring the steak to the table on the cutting board, like they do in Italy. Now carve the two steaks from the bone (you can toss the T-bone back on the grill or into the grill pan to finish it too) and slice the steaks against the grain into ½ inch slices. Reassemble the steak with the bone in the middle and serve it as the centerpiece of this meat-fest. Pass the extra virgin olive oil at the table for a final drizzle.